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Cabinet Buyer’s Guide
Cabinet Buyer’s Guide

Cabinet Buyer’s Guide

What you need to know before you buy kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanities

Construction Materials –

Cabinet boxes are typically built of plywood or particleboard. The strongest cabinets have full plywood sides and backs. They handle the weight of heavy countertops, stay square during installation, and resist damage from occasional moisture.

All plywood construction (APC) has more holding power with screws, fasteners and glue than particle board does. Plywood is made with layers of wood running both lengthwise and crosswise in a way that makes plywood stronger. It has a much higher tolerance for moisture than particleboard does, and this is a key feature to consider for areas with sinks, faucets and running water.

Particleboard –

Is a less expensive alternative. It is vulnerable to damage from moisture or crushing and vulnerable to difficult-to-repair blow outs at screws and joints.

There are many names for particleboard; medium-density fiberboard (MFD) engineered wood, hardboard, substrate and furniture board are just a few.

Particleboard is made of pressing wood particles together with glue and high temperature. Particleboard doesn’t typically expand and contract as the climate becomes warmer or colder. On the downside, the particles pressed together are heavier and don’t have the same per-square-foot strength of plywood.

I-Beam Base Cabinet Construction vs corner gussets or braces

I-Beams are 1/2 inch stretchers used in base cabinet construction. I-beams are locked and secured in a dado joint,nails and glue that capture all four sides of the cabinet. Because the I-beams meet all four sides of the cabinet box, the box is stronger and stays square,and that makes installation of the cabinet and countertop easier.

Corner gussets or braces are usually made from plastic, but sometimes from wood or metal. Gussets are usually stapled to each corner to keep the cabinet square during shipping but sometimes glue, screws or nails are used. Integrated larger gussets can be more effective because they support larger sections of the cabinet sides

Cabinet Back Panel

Solid full height plywood vs other. The strongest cabinet construction secures a solid, full-height plywood back panel to the cabinet with a rabbet joint (notched edge) hot glue and nails. The full back simplifies installation. Since the strength of the plywood extends from top to bottom and side to side, there is no need for hanging rails. If a cut needs to be made to accommodate wiring or plumbing, the back generally will retain its integrity without additional reinforcement.

Other- Metal, rails, hang rails and picture-frame back panels use 1/2″ or 3/4″ hangers at the top and bottom of the cabinet and either omit the back panel entirely (so you can see the wall) or incorporate a 1/8″ to 1/4″ particleboard panel that is the height of the cabinet. If a rail needs to be cut to accommodate wiring or plumbing, additional reinforcement will be necessary

Cabinet Interior

Kitchen cabinet interior and shelf surfaces should be non-porous, wipe-clean, and tough enough to last the life of the cabinets without staining, bubbling or showing wear. Except for glass-front cabinets, where the interior is match to the exterior for style, a light-colored interior is preferred, as it makes it easier to see the contents of the cabinet.

Interior surface materials include melamine, a smooth, tough polymer laminated to plywood or particleboard, and wood veneers.

Melamine is durable, fire resistant, impervious to water, stain resistant, and can be safely cleaned with strong household solutions. As a shelf or cabinet lining, it wipes clean easily. When used as an interior cabinet lining, it is typically finished in a light birch color, providing a bright, neutral appearance and helping illuminate the cabinet interior.

Stained wood veneer -wood is naturally porous and rough, and the finish will be subject to wear. A stained wood veneer interior or shelf surface will absorb moisture and stains and trap soil in the grain of the wood. The finish will not tolerate strong cleaning solutions. Wood veneer will become damaged by residual moisture from dishwashers, excessive humidity, greasy cooking fumes, and dirt and food particles that collect in the porous surface of the wood. When glass fronts reveal the cabinet interior, wood veneer may be stained to match the cabinet exterior.

Drawer Box-

Solid hardwood drawer boxes with dovetail joints and heavy plywood bottoms set the standard for quality in American cabinetry because of their long-lasting strength and durability and the beauty of the dovetail joint. Other drawer boxes may be constructed of particleboard, plastic, metal or plywood sides. In less expensive boxes, sides meet at butt or rabbet (notched) joints are secured with staples.

Drawer-box material and joint construction is an important consideration, since the joints and drawer bottoms are among the first things to fall apart in low-end kitchen cabinetry.

Hardwood dovetail drawer box – A high-quality hardwood drawer box will have sides of 5/8 inch or thicker solid maple or birch. The sides, milled to include interlocking teeth, meet at dovetail joints, where the strength of the joint comes from the wood itself. A strong plywood drawer bottom, fully captured on four sides in dado (grooved) joints, is glued and nailed in place.

Other materials and constructions -A wide range of materials and construction methods are used for cabinet drawers. Particleboard, plywood,  metal  and  plastic  are  common  materials.  Construction methods vary greatly.

Drawer Glides-

High-quality drawer glides (slides or runners) are undermount (concealed) steel with ball-bearing actions, provide full access to the interior of the drawer, maximize storage space, and close softly.

Quality of drawer glides is an important cabinet feature, since they must provide many years of hard use.

Undermount, steel, soft-close glides (also known as slides) should extend to provide full access to the entire drawer. Ball bearings and steel guides  provide  smooth  operation  and  long wear.  Mounted beneath the drawer box, the glides should be rated to support a heavy load, at least 90 pounds.

Adjustable glides with a soft-close (anti-slam) dampening system will be almost silent when opening and closing the drawer.

Other drawer glide systems – there are hundreds of drawer-glide systems and mechanisms used by cabinet manufacturers. A common construction uses epoxy-coated metal with nylon roller, materials subject to wear. Center-mount  and side-mount glides rarely provide full access; instead, about 25 percent of the drawer remains inside the cabinet, making it difficult to reach the back of the drawer. Side-mounted glides reduce the width of the drawer, thus reducing storage space. Side-mount glides are never soft close. At the bottom of the quality scale is a single center-mounted wooden or metal glide sliding through a plastic brace on the cabinet.


Common materials for cabinet shelves are plywood and particleboard . Since cabinet shelves bear weight over long periods of time, strength is a primary consideration. Plywood is stronger and lighter than particleboard, so less likely to bow under the weight of heavy ceramic dishes and metal pots.

Particleboard is less expensive, but more likely to sag, may puff and flake when wet, and is susceptible to crush or damage.

Base cabinets are built with either full-depth or half-depth shelving. Half-depth shelving, the less expensive option, provides less storage space.


Full overlay, inset or partial overly- Mid and high-end cabinets will have full -overlay or inset doors and drawers. The full -overlay style reveals almost no cabinet frame, while the inset style reveals the entire frame. Either style provides a visually smooth, even surface. Economy-grade cabinets may come in a third style, partial -overlay, which requires less wood for doors and drawer fronts.

Full overlay door styles provide a seamless look by minimizing the gap between the cabinet doors. The doors almost completely cover the face frame, revealing only 1/8 to½ inch of the frame around doors and drawer fronts.

Partial (standard) overly doors and drawer fronts only partially cover the face frames of the cabinets, exposing one-to two-inch sections of face frame between the doors and drawer fronts. Once very common, this style is now seen primarily in economy construction .

Inset – In an inset style, doors and drawer fronts sit inside the face frame of the cabinet, on the same plane, with minimal gaps-roughly 1/8 inch. The effect is smooth, crisp and clean. Hinges are partially or completely exposed.


Fully assembled cabinets are completely built at the factory, boxed, and shipped ready to install. Ready­ to-assemble (RTA) cabinets are designed to be assembled by a homeowner or contractor. The difference to the consumer includes price, convenience, and construction strength.

RTA cabinets are generally less expensive, but each box, drawer, roll-out tray and insert has to be assembled. Assembly time is significant. Because of the limitations of home assembly methods, RTA cabinets generally are not as strong or durable as those assembled in a factory.

Fully assembled cabinets designed to be fully assembled in the factory are stronger and more durable. Factory construction methods join wood parts using dovetail joints, hot & cold glue, power fasteners and other industrial techniques. In this wood-to-wood construction, the pieces bond on a microscopic level that increases cabinet strength. A cabinet is built, packed and shipped as a unit, doors and drawers intact, ready to be installed.

RTA cabinets ship in parts, such as the cabinet, face frame, drawers, drawer glides, inserts, doors and hardware, and are deigned to be assembled at the construction site. Whether assembly and installation are handled by the DIV homeowner, or by a hired contractor, some skill is required to ensure safe, function cabinets.


Toekick area refers to space beneath the cabinet, including the inset area at the front. Cabinets constructed with full-plywood sides and back panels reaching the floor provide the strongest support for heavy countertops  and enclose the  space beneath the cabinet. After installation, a finished toekick panel is applied for  a neat, trim look. If the cabinet  is constructed  with fully captured dado joints, hot glue and other top construction methods, this is the strongest base for heavy countertops and ease of installation.

Cabinets with an open front and ready-to-assemble (RTA) cabinets supported by four plastic legs (stainless steel may be available for an upcharge) are not as strong or stable as full-box cabinets . Since the front of the toekick area is open, a toekick panel is necessary to prevent dirt and small articles from being trapped under the cabinet . This toekick panel is usually constructed of wood.

With some RTA cabinets the toekick is a separate piece and not integrated into the cabinet box

Cabinet Hinges-

cabinet hinges are one of the most important components of a kitchen cabinet. You can’t open and close a door without them.

Soft-close. steel, 6-way adjustable A quality cabinet hinge is made from nickel plated, hardened steel and has a soft close mechanism built into the hinge. The hinge should also be adjustable six ways; in­ out, up-down and left -right so the hinges can be adjusted when cabinet doors expand and contract during season changes.

Other hinges – there are thousands of hinges available to cabinet manufacturers. Be wary of cabinet manufacturers that use low end hinges and only provide four-way adjustable and don’t back their product with a lifetime limited warranty.

Cabinet Selection-

The selection of styles, finishes, and sizes offered by a cabinet manufacturer affects pricing, design and style. A fully custom cabinet manufacturer can fulfill any design, but has high production costs that will be passed on to the consumer. A stock manufacturer offering only a few styles and sizes will be able to offer cabinets at lower prices, but will not have sizes needed for most remodels and custom designs.

A middle ground: semi-custom cabinets with modifications-

Semi-custom cabinets with modifications provide a wide range of sizes, styles, and specialty cabinets at a reasonable price. The manufacturer builds each kitchen as a custom project, saving on production cost by starting with a basic cabinet line. Modifications allow a high degree of customization, but that cost is restricted to specific cabinet units.

Modifications include one-inch incremental adjustments in cabinet box sizes, finished interiors, beadboard ends or interiors, glass-ready open-front or mullion doors, storage units, angled end cabinets, and non-conventional uses of standard cabinet boxes. With those options, LCN Kitchen and Bath experienced kitchen designer can provide a high degree of personalization for the homeowner.


A cabinet manufacturer may offer a limited warranty or no warranty at all. The minimum warranty is one year from date of purchase in most cases.

LCN Kitchen and Bath is a member of NKBA.

Why It All Matters-

You can have quality at a reasonable price. This guide is designed to help you compare quality across manufacturers. That is difficult when each cabinet manufacturer uses different language and promotes unique features. Typically, a cabinet manufacturer starts with a basis model as standard construction, then adds charges for upgrades such as plywood boxes, hardwood drawers with dovetail joints, and soft-close, undermount drawer glides. What you need to determine is, which feature defines a better cabinet, and which of those are worth the extra cost?